“So this is one of ten. So there’s a lot that can happen…” The words of Monday’s Geico 400 winner Tony Stewart ring true. It may actually be more understatement than anything else, because a lot has happened already, with front runners dropping off and mid-packers surging ahead.
While most of the race produced the kind of racing typical of a mile-and-a-half track, the ending produced the kind of shake up that a number of fans were looking for. With his win, Stewart is right on the bumper of points leader Kevin Harvick. Suddenly there’s signs of life in “The Nation” as Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes third, and jumps to fifth in the standings. The upstart Brad Keselowski demonstrates he’s no flash in the pan by virtue of his fifth place run, which puts Kez in spitting distance of Junior’s deck lid.
I’m sure it’s not the first time, but when was the last time Jimmie Johnson sat eighth in points at any juncture during the Chase? His tenth place run-after running out of gas-by no means takes him out of the running, but it leaves heading into New Hampshire with no breeze at his back either. “Five Time” will have to fight harder than he ever has before to defend his position as king of the hill. Other chase favorites such as Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch took hits, as they finished south of the top 20, but they’re better off than Denny Hamlin. After finishing 31st, the 2010 runner-up will need to put on one of his famous runs to get himself squarely back in the picture for serious contention.
Just by being consistent, Kevin Harvick leaves Week One with some wind in his sails. “It was a solid day for us. Obviously the last three weeks have been really good for our Budweiser team. We’ve just got to keep going.” Keep in mind, sarcasm is the inspiration for his nickname “Happy.” If the man is smiling, it’s because he really has something to smile about.
It’s contagious, as Junior exudes more confidence than we’ve seen in a while. “You know what, I felt like we would do well in The Chase. These are good tracks for me.” The critics will have to save their stones for another week, as Earnhardt looks quite capable of pick up an elusive win somewhere over the course of the next few weeks. He’s solid at New Hampshire, Kansas and Charlotte, he’s won at Dover and Talladega; heck, he OWNED Talladega at one time. About the only place that appears to a truly mediocre track for Lil’ E is Homestead.
If nothing else, the “take away value” of this week is that no clear front runner has emerged. There are consistent drivers, to be sure; but there’s not that one guy stinking up the show. Looking ahead to Loudon, Ryan Newman runs well there. So does Jimmie Johnson, so does Jeff Gordon, and no one may be more happy than Denny Hamlin to see the “Entering New Hampshire” sign.
Chicago could be the beginning of a very intriguing 2011 finish. This is what a sprint to the finish is supposed to look like.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include: